Remember, Shmoopers, this summary tells things in the order we get them in the book (not in real time). It gets a bit choppy – it's mostly a series of flashbacks – so buckle your seatbelts. (For an actual chronology, check out the "Character Timelines.")
Oh, and one other thing before we get started. It's helpful to keep in mind that we're dealingwith three different time periods in this novel:
- Sutpen's family history (recounted by people in the other two time periods).
- Rosa and Quentin's interactions (September 1909)
- Quentin and Shreve in their dorm room (January 1910)
When the book opens, it's September 1909, and Miss Rosa Coldfield has asked the twenty-year-old Quentin Compson to come to her house to hear the story of her experiences with the legendary Thomas Sutpen. Legendary, indeed, as we will shortly find out.
Like Quentin, Miss Rosa lives in Jefferson, Mississippi. Her life has been isolated and lonely, and she's sitting out her final days in a house that could seriously use an open window. Though Quentin is preparing to leave for Harvard, he is intrigued by the invitation. Because Quentin grew up hearing about Sutpen, he is intensely fascinated by the story.
It doesn't take long for Quentin to realize that Rosa has a bone to pick with Sutpen. She starts her story with Sutpen's arrival in Jefferson in 1833, and describes how he built Sutpen's Hundred (his property) and married Miss Rosa's older sister, Ellen Coldfield – together, they had two children, Judith and Henry.
All sorts of strange goings-on took place out at the estate, including man-to-man combat. Then the Civil War began, Ellen died, and Henry murdered Charles Bon. Of course, none of this means much to us yet (we don't really know the whos, whats, whens, or whys of the situation). After recounting all this, Rosa asks Quentin to return later to take her up to Sutpen's Hundred: she wants to verify a hunch she has.
Quentin goes home to mull over this story with his father, but his dad tells a very different version of things. As they sit on the front porch, Mr. Compson relays what he knows about Thomas Sutpen from his own father, General Compson – and from some major speculation. Based upon his own biases and fantasies, Mr. Compson offers an explanation for why Sutpen refused to allow Judith to marry Charles Bon and why Henry shot Charles Bon at the gates of Sutpen's Hundred. (Things are still a little fuzzy for us, don't worry.)
Mr. Compson also discusses Sutpen's arrival in Mississippi, a story that will become very familiar as we hear and rehear different versions throughout the book. And how does our current narrator know all this? Well, General Compson (his dad, Quentin's grandfather) got to know Sutpen one day while chasing after an escapee from Sutpen's property. Mr. Compson proceeds to tell Quentin about Sutpen's marriage to Ellen Coldfield and the town's deep dislike of the guy (which, as it turns out, does not concern Sutpen in the least).
Confused yet? Hold on tight. Quentin presses his father for more information, including why Rosa feels the need to pour this story out to him of all people. At this point, Mr. Compson gives us more information about Rosa's pathetic life: her mother died in childbirth, she was raised by a spinster aunt, her father locked himself up in the attic and starved to death, and her sister Ellen married the larger-than-life Thomas Sutpen. Miss Rosa kept close tabs on the goings-on out at Sutpen's Hundred, such as the fact that Henry went away to college and had a good friend named Charles Bon. Also, Ellen (Sutpen's wife, Rosa's sister) turned into a shallow woman of means concerned only with dressing her daughter in fancy frocks and setting her up with the right man.
Quentin can't get the image of the wizened old Miss Rosa out of his head as he waits for night to fall so he can take her out to the dilapidated mansion. His father produces a letter that was written by Charles Bon to Judith. Mr. Compson then goes on to describe the relationship between Henry and Charles Bon, which is sort of country boy meets city slicker (Charles was much more experienced and sophisticated). One Christmas, Henry brought Charles Bon home with him; the next Christmas, Henry renounced his birthright and left Sutpen's Hundred with Charles in a big huff. (There's still so much mystery, we know! We promise it's worth it.)
Mr. Compson indulges in all manner of speculation about the big fight between father and son. Is it because Charles Bon married a black woman in New Orleans and Henry thinks his dad is racist? Who knows. In any case, Henry went back to New Orleans with Charles and saw the decadent life his friend was living there. While he was down there, he found out that Charles Bon was in fact married to a courtesan (prostitute), who also happened to be his property. This lady friend of his was black, and so – because we're in the nineteenth century – all sorts of debates occurred about whether the marriage was legitimate.
After that, Henry and Charles Bon enlisted in the army to fight for the South. Over the course of four years, Charles refused to divorce his wife (he didn't think the marriage was legal anyway) and eventually headed back to Sutpen's Hundred determined to marry Judith. Not so fast, Charlie: just like that, Henry shot him at the gates of the house and put an end to his big plan.
The narrative is now resumed by Miss Rosa (still talking to Quentin). She learned that Henry had shot Charles Bon and she and Clytie (Sutpen's half-black daughter) got into a scuffle when Miss Rosa tried to see him. Together, Ellen, Clytie, Miss Rosa, and a poor squatter, Wash Jones, buried Charles Bon. After that, they pretty much just waited around for the war to end and for Sutpen to come home.
Still back in the story, Miss Rosa moved out to Sutpen's Hundred. When Sutpen finally returned from the war, he got straight to rebuilding the plantation and set his sights on impregnating Miss Rosa so he could replace his son who has disappeared. (Um.) But when Miss Rosa realized that Sutpen only wanted to marry her in order to produce a son, she left the plantation. Miss Rosa finishes her story and tells Quentin what that hunch was we heard about earlier: she thinks someone is still living up at Sutpen's Hundred.
Next thing we know, we find ourselves in the present day at Harvard, when Quentin receives a letter from his father telling him that Miss Rosa has died. After some prodding from his roommate Shreve, Quentin decides to tell him the story of Sutpen, Miss Rosa, and the gang. Shreve, believing he has it all figured out, interjects and even takes over the narrative, telling his own completely subjective version of events. (This doesn't help us at all.)
Quentin does manage to squeeze in the story about the end of Sutpen's life: how he failed to rebuild the plantation after the war, drowned his troubles in liquor with Wash Jones, and started a little five-and-dime store. And here's the kicker: Sutpen impregnated Wash Jones' granddaughter, who Sutpen then rejected, and so…Wash killed Sutpen with a scythe. An epic end to an epic life.
Quentin recalls the gravestones on the property and how Charles Bon's wife brought their son, Charles Etienne, to see his father's grave. Eventually Charles Etienne came to live with Clytie and Judith, who raised him in secret. He grew up to be a fine mess of a man, drinking, gambling, and getting arrested. Then he left for a while and returned to Sutpen's Hundred with a wife. But soon enough, he and Judith died of yellow fever: luckily (for whom, we're not sure), Charles Etienne had a son first, who grew into a huge lug named Jim Bond. (Yes, we're still getting new characters this late in the game.)
Now the story returns to Shreve's amazement over the series of events. He's especially blown away that that Miss Rosa sensed that someone was living out at Sutpen's Hundred after not having lived there for forty-three years. We find out that when she and Quentin went out there that night, they found Clytie, Jim Bond, and someone else. But before we get to that, Shreve and Quentin chat some more about Sutpen.
Much of the information that Quentin has from this period comes from the stories that Sutpen told Quentin's grandfather, General Compson. We find out, for example, that Sutpen was born in a log cabin. His family moved from the hills of West Virginia to Virginia to work on a plantation when Sutpen was a young boy. Sutpen quickly learned about racial and class hierarchies and eventually he ran away and ended up in Haiti as the overseer of a sugar plantation. His marriage went south when he realized that his wife (and son) had "negro blood," so he left Haiti and went to build his dynasty in Mississippi. Quite a childhood.
Everything was going fine for Sutpen until Charles Bon (his long-lost son) showed up to the estate with Sutpen's son Henry. This posed a direct threat to the world-domination plan he had in mind. Remember that whole Henry-disowning-his-dad thing from before? Well we're back to that now. But the break between Henry and Sutpen is very hazy. Though Mr. Compson thinks that Sutpen told Henry that Charles Bon was black, he may actually have just told him that Charles Bon was his brother – and that would mean he can't marry Judith. It seems that only later, on the battleground, did Sutpen tell Henry that Charles Bon was part black – and this is information Henry cannot live with. Basically, the incest was fine but the interracial marriage was a big no-no.
After the war, Sutpen tried to rebuild his empire by impregnating Milly, Wash Jones' granddaughter. (Yes, we've heard this one before!) But when he rejected her, Wash Jones killed him with a scythe (picture the Grim Reaper's big knife). And to top it off, Wash Jones ended up killing his daughter, his granddaughter, and himself. Not a good day.
At this point, Shreve and Quentin begin to do some major speculating about Charles Bon's life and his perspective on all these events. They picture his life in New Orleans, and here's what they discuss: Charles Bon's mother and lawyer groomed him for revenge against Sutpen; he married the courtesan and had a son, Charles Etienne; he finally met his father, who then didn't acknowledge him; he was determined to marry Judith and Henry was equally determined to stop the marriage from happening. Got all that?
Quentin finally recounts the details of his visit to Sutpen's Hundred with Miss Rosa on that fateful night. After a violent confrontation with Clytie, Miss Rosa forces her way upstairs. Quentin follows after her and discovers Henry Sutpen, who says he's come home to die. Three months later, Miss Rosa returns to the house to save the dying Henry. As she arrives with an ambulance, Clytie sets the house on fire – Clytie and Henry die and Jim Bond goes off screaming into the wilderness. And that's that, folks.
The novel closes with one final question from Shreve to Quentin: "Why do you hate the South?"